Text and photos by Oded Tshesly
Three years ago, when we lived in Barcelona, I started to bake bread. Back then I cared less about what the label said, so I can just guess that it was Spanish: flour, yeast, water, and salt. Sorry, Cataluña. When we returned to Italy, I continued to bake bread and only the ingredients turned out to be Italians. We did it knowingly since there was no reason to fly flour from Spain, yeast from France, and salt from Austria, just to bake bread in Rome. A year ago, when we moved to Lamezia Terme, I went on with baking bread, but then we decided that we didn’t want just any bread, but we wanted a local one, from Calabria. The challenge became more difficult since we didn’t know if there was even such a thing as Calabrian flour. Is the Calabrian flour fit for baking bread? Where do we even get Calabrian flour?
Here in Lamezia Terme, we found the Molino Sant’Antonio (“Sant’Antonio Mill”), for which we had high hopes. Yet, we found out that the grains the mill works with come from other Italian regions – and it wasn’t enough for us. Not far from Lamezia Terme resides Pianopoli, a small village of more or less 2500 residents who live in about 5 streets – and some houses scattered around. As much as Pianopoli is small, we visit it often, since there are located our dogs’ groomer, the computer lab and chiropractor – in case we need, and also the mill Molino Antica Macina (“Old Stone Mill”, in Calabrian dialect) of brother and sister Pietro and Anna Musio, our flour suppliers.
The idea of operating a stone mill came to Pietro when he stayed with his uncle and aunt in Puglia, on the other side of Italy’s south. His uncle cultivates wheat, so knowing and dealing with it wasn’t an unfamiliar thing for Pietro. After visiting many small mills around the region, studying their secrets, his aunt asked: “you always go around mills – why don’t you have one of your own?”. Not like similar questions that whoever likes to cook hears “why don’t you open a restaurant?”, Pietro found it reasonable, and asked for state funding, a known and appreciated practice that helps young entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in the southern regions. But the initial request was denied. So, Pietro returned to Pianopoli – to try again, this time closer to home.
In Via Addolorata (“Street of Sorrows”), just in front of The Church of Blessed Virgin of Sorrows, Pietro found four years ago a space that used to host a tiny oil mill. In this place, which was well-curated and stayed the same as in previous years, Pietro made his dream come true. It’s a rather small place. Left of the entrance stands the wheat cleaning machine, and all around there are big buckets filled with all sorts of flour, shelves with some more types, local legumes, and a small variety of extra-regional produce. This is how things go around here: on small scale, but with quality and attention to detail in mind.
The heart of the mill is, naturally, the mill. After collecting recommendations from other mill owners and checking carefully many companies, including Italian ones, Pietro decided to go for a mill made in the village Dölsach in Austria by Osttiroler Getreidemühlen. In the factory that was founded in 1945 by the grandfather Oswald Green, and is now managed by his granddaughter Heidi, stone mills are produced by hand. These are an exact copy of 18th-century mills that used to be hydro-powered, but today they use electricity. Pay good attention not to mix the two. The mills are sold all around the world, from the artisan bakery A Padeira in São Paulo Brazil, to the shop of the flour manufacturer in Vermont King Arthur, to the Austrian bakeries chain Ströck.
Up to 80 kilograms can enter the “Tramoggia”, a Latin-derived word that describes exactly the hopper on one side, and the flour poured rapidly straight to the bag or bucket underneath it. Each cell and the filter it hold, according to the wheat and the desired size. A filter of 224 microns will hold up to 20% percent of the initial amount of grano tenero (“delicate wheat”, which can be used to almost all sorts of bread, for example), and even more in the case of grano duro (“Hard wheat” that is used to prepare pasta). The largest holes of 1120 micron create the net for wholewheat flour, which – as the name hints – doesn’t lose anything. The nozzle on the other side of the machine emits whatever’s left and also these residues will be used to feed animals. Nothing gets lost in the process.
But in between, there is where all the magic happens. Inside the wooden palettes, two basalt stones come from the Greek island of Naxos. These stones are known for their hardness, and the lack of constant maintenance, such as massive cleaning after each round of milling, or grinding often. The stones turn in a speed of 90 to 100 rounds per minute, a speed that might sound very fast, but it’s very slow, compared to the industrial mills that turn up to 4 times faster. Slow stone milling, instead of metal cylinders milling, prevents the flour from getting hot and keeps its nutrients.
All the numbers, measures and percentages seem like a product of a long theoretical period, but in fact, Anna and Pietro never studied it officially. It all started at home since their father came from wheat farmers and was an enthusiast about stone mill flour. Therefore, it’s studying by tradition – and lots of experience that grows constantly, since nature brings along with the wheat, which is a “living produce,” surprises, sometimes pleasant and sometimes less. As an example, Anna showed us a handful of grano duro grains that suffered the long wait for rain. Since the humidity stayed in the air for a long time without rain, the wheat became more vulnerable and caused a smaller harvest.
The mill’s small capacity allows flexibility in its operation since there’s no need to stop the whole process – but to wait for the end of the round. After the machine stops it will be possible to examine artfully the compatibility of grains, humidity in the time of milling and the days to come, the level of milling, and the final product. Although it’s a tiny mill that doesn’t have silos of its own, Pietro handles the close relationship with wheat farmers all around Calabria: from Cosenza in the North, Crotone on its east coast, up to Vibo Valentia on its west coast. This “ring of trust,” a central characteristic of Calabria, helps Pietro to keep in the silo of each field his – and only his – crop, so the mill can work all along the wheat cycle, from July to July. This is how different types of wheat arrive in Pianopoli, but all types of the region: Antille, Adelaide and Anapo, and other types of flour that cannot be milled in stone as delicate as 00 – all Italians, of course.
The ”Ring of trust” turns into a chain, when the wheat that grows around Pianopoli turns to flour in Molino Antica Macina and continues its way to bakeries, pastry shops, and local pasta producers. Great pride is the fact that recently Anna and Pietro started to mill flour for the pasta of Callipo, one of Calabria’s super brands, that has given the mill a quality stamp. Aside from the big name, the mill is open to anyone who has stocks of wheat, from growers to bakers and wishes to try to create a personal “blend,” exactly like a coffee one.
Currently, Anna and Pietro sell their product only in Italy but carry their eyes forward in the will to expand and share their experience and knowledge – as they do with their close customers. Anything that the flour that goes out of the mill, and has a much shorter shelf life than the industrial one, will get to its destination as bread, pastry, or pasta. We (I’m the baker of the house) are already in love with the flour from Pianopoli, that manages to shine every time we open the oven’s door. What is the secret? I find the combination of 50% flour type 1, 25% flour Manitoba, 25% wholewheat – and at least 60% hydration. It works.
Calabria is spotted with many old mills, but most of them are not active. While talking to Anna and Pietro we understood that 80 years ago, many years before it became an oil mill, stood at the same place as an old stone mill. If there’s something like “a soul of a place,” then the space in “the Street of Sorrows” revived its origins, and the old flour mill of Pianopoli found its comfort in Molino Antica Macina of family Musio.